Thursday, April 11, 2013

Career paths and confusions

Here is a small mail chain with long replies. I seemed to have touched a spot for Sriram to write such a detailed mail on his view on PHD, but nonetheless, thought his gyan needed to be shared with broader public*

*Permission pending. And for the uninitiated, Sriram was the IP 3 (Insti position 3) from IIT M and got into Cornell for PHD.


S Sriram 16 
Apr 4 (7 days ago)
to me
11:35 AM me: 16
  u must have read the phd rape article on economist na?
  wat ur opinion?

S Sriram 16
Apr 5 (6 days ago)
to me

I read the article a long time back, just skimmed it again. I agree with the main point that there are perhaps more PhDs being produced than can be absorbed, but that's probably true today of every kind of education and job. I'm one of those people who feels the luddite fallacy isn't really a fallacy (wow the wikipedia title has changed since a year or so back when i read it). I'll leave this technology unemployment digression for another day. Back to the issue of PhDs. This article probably speaks from the perspective of americans or europeans. But from my perspective, and probably that of insti junta and even other Indians, the big issue is probably the very limited back flow of info on PhD from current students to 3rd/4th year undergrads. Then the assumption was that if you are a maggu and generally like to study/learn you'll fit into a PhD. That's somewhat true for science (physics, chem, biology, may be computer science) PhDs, but a lot less true for engineering PhDs. In engineering, the goal is to mix and match known concepts from physics using real phsyical objects to make something useful for people.  

A fundamental realization for me was that no one will pay for you to learn stuff for yourself. Learning something will be of value to society only if you are the very first person to "learn" it, in which case you are what you are really doing is discovering/inventing that piece of information rather than learning/understanding it. So you can't simply sit and keep reading about one subject after the other on things you don't know. You have to contribute useful ideas. The process of sitting and understanding some piece of knowledge (maths theorem, physics equation, or engineering concept) is very different from inventing a new theorem, new equation or new device, or more generally, any new idea. Coming from the indian system, we are fairly poorly trained in open-ended thinking where there is simply no "correct answer" to get to. Like the article says, only a handful of PhDs make go on to become profs. But what i can tell from the inside is that those prof-level students are those who are both extremely intelligent and highly imaginative. They are creative enough to come up with ideas and smart enough to know how to test and execute it. Many grad students like both studying and explaining/teaching but this is not enough to get you a good professorship. 

Others like me are good enough at problem solving to execute an idea but draw a blank on new ideas and probably end up doing industrial D (from R&D :).As a prof, at least in the US, you need to constantly come up with ideas for grants and enough of them should be viable that you have a reasonable stream of money flowing in. Even in India there's growing focus on research output. In that context i realized that we have a disproportionately large number of pure science research happening in India as compared to engineering research. Most govt research institutes, your IICT, CCMB, IISER, TIFR, RRI, HRI... all mainly work on pure sciences. ONLY IISc and IITs do engineering. Like i said before, a lot science research can be done by simply studying something that someone else hasn't studied before. But that's typically very "academic" in nature. Only if you have enough engineering happening, or "innovation" to use the latest buzzword of the HRD ministry, can you translate some of that purely academic knowledge into something that people will pay money for. So coming back to the topic, my biggest PhD gripe is that it's not about learning but about imagining. I know i'm not terribly creative and would not really mind executing someone else's ideas. But i'd like to think i'm incrementally better at open thinking now than i was three years back. So hopefully i'll have some useful idea some day. 

That's enough ramble for the day. Should put vid call next time to avoid this pain of typing.  :)

Anupam Chakilam 
Apr 5 (6 days ago)
to S
haha..dood. seriously. Long arse mail. Strong opinions you have. I'm familiar with luddite fallacy. Suresh Babu mentioned it during one macro economics class. I have been reading similar articles on MBA. My biggest worry is, no body seems really happy you know. Like, people say MBA is not worth it, PHD is not worth it, staying in Job is not worth it..then what the hell is? I know I'm painting everystream with same brush, but the future seems kind of scary

Out of interaction experience, the only ones I have seen little mellow and happy about career path are entreupreneurs, but I guess that is not everyone's cup of tea. Have you read this about U bend of life? This kind of gave the answer.Read if you have time.

And yea, you are right, we'll put vid chat. I'm going home for Ugadi for a week. And apparently mattu's marriage is there sometime next month and India juntha are planning to put meet. Wassup that side of the world? My MBA applications cupped spectacularly. Thinking of applying locally next year. I'll 99% stay in India and make a career here only looks like, which I'm kinda happy about as of now. Lesse.